I have a passionate love for books with magic or superpowered people and I’m currently in the processing of writing my own little fantasy tale and, let me tell you, as fun as imagining a make-believe world is, it’s insanely difficult to establish a coherent magic system. Depending on the kind of story you’re writing, a magic/power system can be as comprehensive or as mysterious as you want and oftentimes even just deciding which route to take can be difficult.
In my opinion, a story can have the most fascinating magic/power system ever but if that system doesn’t have consistent rules, if the system can’t even stand under basic scrutiny, then the whole story will flop. Willing suspension of disbelief can only go so far and when you’re dealing with magical folk you’re treading on thin ice to begin with. Now, from what I’ve gleaned from weeks of on-and-off research, making a rational magic/power system is attainable if you take three things into consideration: the verisimilitude of the system, the conflict/s that the system invokes, and the impact of the magic/power to users, non-users, and society as a whole.
As an example, let’s take a look at Marissa Meyer’s triumphant sci-fi adventure series, The Lunar Chronicles. Although the book series doesn’t have as extensive a magic/power system as in a Tolkien tale or any Tamora Pierce book, I believe The Lunar Chronicles is a great example of how a simple superhuman ability can shape a simple story into a complicated, riveting yarn.
Before anything else, here’s a quick rundown of the Lunar Chronicles books: set in a futuristic world where the people of Earth have a hostile relationship with the people of Luna, the country in the moon, the main protagonist, a young cyborg mechanic named Linh Cinder, is thrown into a political controversy that could change everything. Together with a ragtag team of fugitives and misfits, Cinder embarks on an interplanetary journey to rise up against the malevolent Queen Levana, a cruel and violent Lunar with powerful mind control abilities.
Verisimilitude (a fancy word for believability)
In The Lunar Chronicles, people who live in the moon, Lunars, have the ability to reach into people and control their thoughts. The watered down version is that the Lunar gift is a genetic mutation that allows a person (or Lunar) to sense the bioelectricity of humans as well as dominate it. They can manipulate what people can see and even feel, not to mention control people’s actions. The Lunar gift is most powerful in the royal line, hence Queen Levana’s formidability.
Considering the story’s setting (the far off future where technology has evolved to the point where space travel is a common occurrence), this ability is genuinely believable. Being genetically capable of mind control isn’t that much of a stretch considering people are already living on the moon.
The bioelectricity control also ties in with limitations of the Lunar gift. For instance, Lunars can’t control people at a certain distance, reflective surfaces and video feeds don’t show the Lunar’s illusions or glamours, and Lunars without the gift (“shells”) are immune to its control. All of these limitations coincide with what we already know of the Lunar gift: a Lunar can only control nearby electromagnetic energies. If a person isn’t in the immediate vicinity, they can’t be manipulated by the Lunars. Simple logic.
Limitations, I might add, are just as important as the abilities themselves. What the Lunar gift can’t do is just as important as what it can do. The Lunar gift is fearsome, yes, but not omnipotent. There are ways around it, giving the main characters hope, making the story interesting. More so, the limits of the gift drive the story forward.
Conflict (what the magic system means for our heroes)
The people of Earth are the most susceptible to the Lunar gift as they have no means of fighting it. This is particularly damning for our heroes who are made up mostly of Earthens. Fighting the Lunars not only means clashing with the enemy but also risking their own mental control. Whenever the Lunar army makes an appearance, the stakes are raised. You know that the main characters could easily fall under the clutches of the Lunars and our heroes would be powerless against them.
Not only that, the Lunar gift is a great political tool and weapon that Queen Levana brandishes with nary a blip in her conscience. Of course Earthens would think twice about forming an alliance with Luna, to the point of banning all Lunars from Earth. Even minus the none too subtle threats of world domination, with a queen and hundreds of citizens capable of mind controlling a powerless populace, how can anyone ever trust Lunars?
However, one should take note that not all Lunars are inherently evil. A lot of them are decent people who also suffer from the merciless monarchy of Queen Levana. Some even dare to escape Luna for Earth and suppress their Lunar gift but, and here’s another point of conflict, suppressing their gift slowly drives Lunars mad. So even if Earthens trust Lunars enough to not use their gift on them, the Lunars need to use it to keep their sanity.
And so the plot thickens.
Impact (what the magic system means for everyone else)
The Lunar ability is not just a threat to Earthens alone. The people of Luna, especially ordinary citizens whose gifts aren’t particularly powerful, also suffer from it. The government of Luna is a monarchy, basically the ripest place for corruption especially with mind-control in the picture, and lower-class Lunars are constantly abused by those in power.
Because of the Lunar gift, the society in Luna is extremely warped: superficiality is celebrated, corruption is cultivated to perfection, and basic freedom is deemed a luxury for many. Though it does make enough sense. If you and everyone around you had the ability to appear as beautiful as you want and control the thoughts and actions of those weaker than you, your perception of right and wrong is bound to be distorted, especially if a society like that is all you know. Still, the entitlement, arrogance, and shallowness of aristocratic Lunars is so appalling that it’s inhuman. It almost makes sense how Levana grew up to be so evil. It doesn’t excuse any of Levana’s cruelties but it does give us an insight to how such a vile being came to be considering the twisted morals the Lunars adopted.
And of course this type of mindset would cause further distrust among Earthens, deepening their disdain and fear of Lunars even more. The people of Earth even believe Lunars to be witches, a superstition that the monarchy encourages as it empowers them.
The Lunar Chronicles succeeded not only because of the superb writing, excellent characters, and spectacular worldbuilding, but also because of how cleverly antagonists (and their superhuman abilities) were set up as threats to the heroes. The Lunar gift wasn’t just a superpower that pops up every other chapter but was also a crucial plot point. The gift explains quite clearly why Lunars and Earthens just can’t get along – the power dynamic is too high and both sides have good reasons for not trusting the other.
Although I still maintain that designing a rational magic/power system is extremely complicated, I believe that with enough thought and effort (and a lot of creativity), anyone can make the loftiest spells to the humblest heightened skills be fascinating.